The Great River Road

Old Man River, Father of Waters, “body of a nation,” Big Muddy—by any name the mighty Mississippi cuts a mythic figure across the American landscape.

Vacherie: Oak Alley and Laura

Traveling along the GRR, moldering concrete mausoleums, houses with loud colors and louvered French doors, and insouciant pedestrians along the levee (not to mention the dangerously large potholes) may arrest your attention briefly, but Oak Alley (3645 Hwy-18/Great River Rd., 225/265-2151, daily, $20) will probably stop you in your tracks. This place is to antebellum plantations what Bora Bora is to islands, or the Golden Gate is to bridges: Even if you’ve managed to avoid seeing Oak Alley on tourist brochures, or in the movies Interview with a Vampire or Primary Colors, it will look familiar—or rather, it will look exactly like it ought to. Plus, no cooling tower or gas flare mars the immediate horizon. For the full effect of the grand quarter-mile-long allée of arching live oaks, which were planted in the 1700s, nearly a century before the current house was built in the late 1830s, drive past the entrance a short ways. Besides the obligatory tour, there’s lodging and a restaurant in buildings on the grounds in back of the main house.

Oak Alley stands on the west bank of the river, three miles north of Vacherie. The house is about 15 miles south of the Sunshine Bridge and 8 miles north of the Veterans Memorial Bridge (Hwy-3213). There’s a ferry nearby, too, between Edgard and Reserve, but this runs at very limited hours.

As a colorful antidote to the grand, whitewashed privilege on display at Oak Alley, set aside some time for a tour of nearby Laura (2247 Hwy-18, 225/265-7690, daily, $24) plantation as well. Smaller, but seeming more in touch with the realities of sugarcane plantation life, Laura presents itself as a Creole plantation and plays up the myriad of ethnicities and cultures that came together in Louisiana. Laura is three miles downriver from Oak Alley.

Continuing south from Vacherie, scattered housing begins to invade the sugarcane, and traffic starts to pick up as the GRR (Hwy-18) works its serpentine way past a pair of ferry landings, a nuclear power plant, and a huge chemical plant with a photogenic cemetery felicitously occupying its front yard. By the time the GRR is within sight of the stylish, rusty-red I-310 bridge, the tentacles of New Orleans’s bustle are definitely apparent. Hop on the Interstate eastbound, and inside of 25 miles you can be hunting for parking in New Orleans’s Vieux Carré, or searching for a Sazerac to celebrate the journey.

 

Laura (2247 Hwy-18)

Oak Alley (3645 Hwy-18)